9 Random Things You Didn’t Know About ’80s Pro Wrestlers

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper Was Cast In 'They Live' Because He Had 'Life' Written All Over Him

During the 1980s, professional wrestling in the United States went from regional entertainment to a national craze. The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) put on televised events that garnered huge ratings, brought thousands of fans to live bouts, and changed the sport forever.

Now branded World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE introduced audiences around the country – and the world – to the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Alongside numerous other charismatic and over-the-top figures, these ’80 wrestlers took part in feuds and brawls in the ring while growing in popularity outside of the wrestling world.

1. ‘Bam Bam’ Bigelow Saved Three Children From A Burning Building

'Bam Bam' Bigelow Saved Three Children From A Burning Building

Prior to becoming a professional wrestler, Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow worked as a bounty hunter, took a bullet to the back, and spent time in Mexican prison. He made his WWF debut in 1987. “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharp said Bigelow was recruited into the sport because he was “a natural… he can do cartwheels, monkey flips and dropkick a guy six-foot-six right in the chin.” 

Bigelow wrestled for over a decade before an act of heroism sent him to the hospital for two months. In 2000, Bigelow rushed into a house fire and, while rescuing children from the flames, was burned across 40% of his body. Bigelow saved three children that day and later commented, “It’s really ironic that a guy who wore flames almost his whole career and has his head tattooed can be burnt 40% and not have scars.”

Bigelow went on to open a failed restaurant and survive a motorcycle accident in 2005. He struggled with the transition out of wrestling, remarking, “You did this the first half of your life and now this is the second half and you’re bruised and battered… So what the hell can you do?”

Bigelow died of an overdose in 2007.

2. Sgt. Slaughter Was One Of Two Pro Wrestlers To Have G.I. Joe Action Figures

Sgt. Slaughter Was One Of Two Pro Wrestlers To Have G.I. Joe Action Figures

In 2007, Hasbro released an action figure for “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, one that honored the bag-piping wrestler as an Iron Grenadier trainer in the Scottish Army. But Piper wasn’t the first professional wrestler to get an action figure; that distinction went to Sgt. Slaughter.

Slaughter (whose real name is Robert Remus, and who was never in the military) was in full military mode in the ring. Slaughter was incorporated into the G.I. Joe franchise in 1985 when Hasbro put him into the popular children’s cartoon. The animated Sgt. Slaughter was accompanied by all kinds of merchandise, including an action figure.

When asked about the relationship between Sgt. Slaughter and G.I. Joe, “Sarge” recalled the first meeting he had with the toy makers. He cautioned them, “I appreciate you letting me come in and talk to you, but just remember, I’m the real G.I. Joe.”

It was a good deal for Sarge, Hasbro, and professional wrestling – with a catch. The very first Sgt. Slaughter figure couldn’t be purchased. Sarge explained:

You had to earn him. You’d do the five proofs of purchases and send them in. There was even a number that kids could call, telling them a secret code [good for one proof of purchase]. To the surprise of both myself and Hasbro, they backordered so fast. So a lot of kids were waiting at their mailboxes for quite a while to get their action figure. 

3. ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper Was Cast In ‘They Live’ Because He Had ‘Life’ Written All Over Him

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper Was Cast In 'They Live' Because He Had 'Life' Written All Over Him

Other than being a professional wrestler, one of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s biggest popular culture contribution involves his appearance in John Carpenter’s They Live. The movie came out in 1988, with Piper playing John Nada.

Piper, and his famous line about chewing bubble gum and kicking butt, graced screens after Carpenter saw Piper wrestle. When talking about why Piper got the part, Carpenter explained:

Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him… He has been hit so many times that he is really broken up. He even walks funny, because his pelvis was shattered and his back was wrenched. He is definitely not  a pretty boy. He’s the toughest guy I ever met. You could run a truck into Roddy, and he would still be standing.

4. The Iron Sheik Worked As A Bodyguard For The Shah Of Iran

The Iron Sheik Worked As A Bodyguard For The Shah Of Iran

The Iron Sheik (Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri) was born in Iran and, during the 1980s, was presented as the ultimate villain in the WWF. Before arriving in the United States in 1970, the Sheik trained in Greco-Roman wrestling, which he considered “the Old Country way.” His time in Iran also involved service in the Iranian Navy and working as a bodyguard to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. 

About his time as a bodyguard, the Sheik said:

I was responsible for the Shah and his wife in certain situations. I was there to protect the Shah and anytime anyone came near him, I made sure no one touch him. If anyone did, I break their neck. I respect the Shah and made sure he protected. They choose me to this position so I kick the sh*t out of anyone who f*ck with him and make them suffer.

Shah Pahlavi was in power in Iran until 1979, around the same time the Sheik first appeared in the ring in the United States. During the intervening years, the Sheik won several amateur wrestling championships and was part of the coaching staff for the US Olympic wrestling team in 1972 and 1976.

5. Andre The Giant Wore His Cross-Body Singlet Because He Had Back Problems

Andre The Giant Wore His Cross-Body Singlet Because He Had Back Problems

André René Roussimoff, or Andre the Giant to his legions of fans, spent his life wrestling. During his initial years in the ring in his native France through his career in American professional wrestling, Andre endured numerous injuries – some of which were perpetuated by his acromegaly.

Acromegaly (gigantism) was what led to Andre’s large size because it released excess human growth hormone into the body. Andre never got treatment for acromegaly because, according to his doctor, he was afraid “it might interfere with his career as a wrestler.” The importance of wrestling to Andre also came through in his willingness to endure increasing levels of pain.

Andre had to wear a back brace, something he couldn’t do in simple trunks. This is why he adopted the cross-body singlet for which he’s known: He needed something to hide the device used to support him. Even after surgery, during which “they had to cut his back open and widen the spine,” Andre was limited in what he could do in the ring due to his weakened physical condition. 

6. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts Was Afraid Of Snakes

Jake 'The Snake' Roberts Was Afraid Of Snakes

Jake “The Snake” Roberts was accompanied by a snake for many of his bouts in the ring (especially against Andre the Giant) but, in truth, he was “terrified when it [came] to those slithery things.”

In 2019, Roberts explained:

I came up with the Jake “The Snake” concept while smoking a lot of pot and drinking a lot of beer. That’s what happens when you indulge. You get an idea that might not be the best thought in your mind. I did that and I was stuck with the name.

There were numerous snakes that slithered through the Snake’s hands, because they “couldn’t be around for that long.” Snakes needed breaks, according to Roberts, even though “some were pretty even-tempered and well, some weren’t.”

The Snake’s best-known snake, Damien, was at the center of one of professional wrestling’s most memorable events. In 1991, Earthquake (John Tenta) “crushed” Damien in a match with the Snake. In truth, Damien wasn’t actually harmed in the stunt.

7. ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan Was In The Chess Club In High School

'Hacksaw' Jim Duggan Was In The Chess Club In High School

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan’s persona in the ring was that of a burly, two-by-four wielding patriotic American. Hacksaw Jim spent more than three decades crying out his characteristic “Hooo!” but this was only after becoming a pretty successful chess player.

When Duggan was in high school, he split his time between sports and chess, something that earned him a headline in the local paper – “Chess-playing giant joins SMU” – when he signed to play football at Southern Methodist University after graduation. 

8. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage Had A Contract To Play Professional Baseball

'Macho Man' Randy Savage Had A Contract To Play Professional Baseball

“Macho Man” Randy Savage made his mark on professional wrestling – and Slim Jim marketing – until his death in 2011, but even before that, he had a career playing professional baseball.

Macho Man (born Randy Poffo) got a contract to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. The former all-star catcher actually trained himself to be ambidextrous (should he ever be tasked with pitching, he wanted to prevent one arm from getting too tired) and seemed destined for the majors. 

Despite his hard work and years playing in the minor leagues, Macho Man just “didn’t have the talent to go any further,” said former Tampa Tarpons manager Mike Moore.

In one of his last at bats, the future wrestler was hit in the head by a pitch. In response, Macho Man “charged the mound and started fighting the guy” – perhaps a sign of his career to come. 

9. Lou Albano And Cyndi Lauper Joined Forces To Make Professional Wrestling Go Mainstream

“Captain” Lou Albano was a professional wrestler during the 1950s and 1960s before shifting into management and promotions. By chance, he met musician Cyndi Lauper on an airplane, which led to a collaboration on the video for her song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Albano played the father in the video, the two remained friends, and she even appeared on Roddy Piper’s show, Piper’s Pit, as her contact with professional wrestling grew.

On that show, Albano and Lauper staged a fight – one that could only be resolved in the ring. They appeared in The Brawl to End it All on MTV (in its infancy) in 1984 – although they had female wrestlers battle it out on their behalf.

Huge ratings led to Lauper’s presence at wrestling events for years afterward. She soon struck up a friendship with Hulk Hogan, even taking him to the Grammy Awards in 1985 – the same year she was nominated for record, song, and album of the year.